Saturday, July 26, 2014

Once Upon a Time in the West

This film is a masterpiece that did not get the accolades it deserved on initial release due to studio tampering and cuts. When restored to it's full glory several years ago, it developed a degree of respect far beyond that accorded the earlier spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. If anyone has said something to you in the last fifteen years about how great this film is they were right and you should have listened to them.I have seen this movie two or three times in the last couple of years but this was the first opportunity I've had to see it on the big screen. The American Cinematique was showing this at the Egyptian Theater on Friday night so I made the thirty-five mile trek down there to catch it. There was a problem with the ticketing process and we had to be issued blank tickets. It took extra time and while I waited in line I had a nice conversation with the gentleman behind me. He was also seeing it for the umpteenth time but had actually gone when it first hit theaters and did not like it. As his perspective changed over the years, forced in part by friends who wanted him to enjoy the film as much as they did, he had become one of the films big admirers and he told me that my review today should be glowing, so it is.

There are so many things to talk about on this movie that I'm afraid I will have to be arbitrary to hold it to a reasonable length. I want to start with the opening of the film, which deserves a blog post of it's own. The first fifteen minutes of the movie are so incredibly well put together, it is difficult to imagine that it could be any better. Only one character speaks in the opening and he has just a couple of lines that are ignored by the main actors. Three ominous men, heavily armed and with no pretense of friendliness, show up at a train station to await the arrival of a man they have been sent to kill. They lock up the station agent, the Indian woman at the platform runs off, and it is just the three men in a stark setting, positioning themselves and waiting for the train. Normally there would be a score or theme playing to create additional tension, instead, the sounds of the station are turned into a symphony of creaks, squeaks, and buzzing flies. One man cracks his knuckles as if loosening up his fingers for the gunplay to come, one takes a seat outside the station and begins to amuse himself by capturing an annoying fly in the barrel of his gun. The third man stands in the shade under the water tower and doesn't move from the spot even when a drip of water begins to fill the brim of his hat with a steady drop by drop pounding. The sound design in this scene is marvelous. The windmill turns continuously and it squeaks out a tune that is as threatening as any music would have been. The first drop of water on the hat sounds like a bullet hitting nearby. The surrounding silence builds until we finally hear the screeching train whistle, still a couple of miles away. All three of the actors perform without words until that train arrives. Sergio Leone notoriously uses close ups to add character to the players and the intensity of the three pairs of eyes, the grime on their faces and the lack of anything resembling a human emotion tells us that these are three very bad men.

Since the scene involves waiting for a fourth man, who turns out to be Charles Bronson one of the listed stars of the film, it is not really a spoiler to say that the scene turns out in a way very different than has been set up. If the opening scene of the movie deserves it's own blog post, then a book should be written about the face of Charles Bronson. His skin is taut and bronzed. His cheeks and eyes resemble a punching bag from a gym frequented by expert heavyweights. His green eyes spit death and seem as dangerous a warning as the shake of a rattlesnakes tail. When Clint Eastwood crosses paths with violent men in his Leone films, there was a sense of resignation about the inevitability of those men's deaths. The verbal byplay that would ensue, still left a hope that someone would survive. No such hope exists when Bronson stares down his would be killers. His comment that they brought two more horses than necessary would have provoked a laugh coming from Clint, here it encourages a shudder. Death has spoken and he has no sense of humor, despite the joke. For two more hours of the picture, we are going to see that face and most of the men who encounter it during the course of the story are not going to live through the experience.

So much of the movie is made up of close ups that you might become a little claustrophobic. In truth though there are spectacular vistas, mixing scenes shot in Spain with locations in Arizona and Utah. There is a great revealing shot as the female lead, chooses to leave the train station and find a carriage to take her to her new husbands ranch. As the camera comes up over the roof of the station, a wide street filled with activity and the dusty background of the desert is shown with a wonderful musical theme that brings out the majesty in the moment. Earlier we were treated to the slaughter of a family in the wide open territory surrounding their house, with a long shot of the predators closing in at the end like a pack of wolves. Several moments in the film will feature a train, crawling across the vast space of the desert vistas and making the human figures appear microscopic at times. The composition of most of these shots is planned and choreographed to give exactly the impression that Leone wants to create at each key moment.

If you watch the movie for a first time, there may be some moments that are a little confusing. There are two gangs of thugs in the story. One lead by the psychopathic Frank, and the other by laconic criminal  Cheyenne.  As Frank's men are trying to pass themselves off as Cheyenne's gang, in order to deflect blame for the atrocities that they are engaging in, they sometimes wear the same long dusters that are the trademark of the band of criminals that ride with Cheyenne. Since the faces are often indistinct under beards, grime and large hats, it is easy to get lost as you try to figure out which group of crooks you are watching at any moment. When Frank's men turn on him at one point, it is also a little confusing, especially when Bronson's character, known as "Harmonica", seems to be saving Frank and shooting at men that a few minutes before might have been his allies. I can imagine how difficult it might have been for audiences watching a truncated version of the film, to keep track of what is happening on screen.

In a stroke of casting genius, Leone places genial, well loved Henry Fonda in the part of Frank, as the vilest killer in westerns. He shoots down an eight year old boy in cold blood. He suggests that it is because one of his crew used his name and the boy heard, but everything about frank and Fonda's performance suggests that this is merely a pretext used to justify the act to his men Looking at him in different spots throughout the movie, there is no doubt that Frank enjoys the infliction of cruelty on others. Just as Bronson will be seen in a hundred close ups, so will Fonda, his piercing blue eyes displaying a coldness to them that had never before been a part of any performance he had given on screen. When he casually talks about the future death of the woman he has kidnapped, as he is sexually engaged with her, we know that there is no soft spot anywhere in his bones. As the unfortunate Mrs. McBain tries to reach him through sex, he mocks her as a tramp, willing to debase herself in any way to survive. Of course he has given her no choice and is is only the desire to acquire her land that keeps him from murdering her once he has violated her.

One other sweaty face that we see in close up dozens of times in the movie is that of Cheyenne, the criminal played by Jason Robards. His character turns out to have the most humanity, which says something since he is a notorious criminal and murderer himself. He is the most grizzly of the three lead actors, and his motivations are far from clear. We know that Harmonica is on some kind of vengeance seeking plan against Frank, but we do not learn why until the end of the picture. We never really know why Cheyenne takes the side of the widow McBain or allies himself with the clearly dangerous Harmonica, except that it seems to amuse him to do so.
Robards has whatever comic relief there might be in the picture, but it is never presented as a comedy. His lines and the gunshot through the boot might provoke a laugh, but the character is never a clown and he is as dangerous as either of the other men. None of the three characters are played as if they are stupid, but Cheyenne is the one who seems to most recognize his own limitations. It is strange to think of this character as the conscience of the story but that is exactly what he is.

The shootouts and action scenes in the film are great. Leone makes us wait in agonizing anticipation in some spots for the payoff that we know is coming, but that makes the payoff all the better when it arrives. I meant to keep this short and if I stop before I get involved with the complexities of the plot maybe I can do so. There are many moments of beauty and several amusing lines, but all of it is leading up to the moment when Frank and Harmonica meet for the final showdown. As Cheyenne puts it:" He's whittling on a piece of wood. I got a feeling that when he stops whittling, something's gonna happen." This film is the main inspiration of another of my favorites, the homage "The Quick and the Dead". When you get to the reveal of the vengeance motive, you will enjoy the Sharon Stone movie much more. I can't imagine that anyone would be able to enjoy this movie more. It is the ultimate achievement of director Sergio Leone, and it is just about as great a Western as you are likely to see. 


SJHoneywell said...

This isn't my favorite Western, but it's in my top five. You're dead on about the casting of Henry Fonda, which is a piece of brilliance, especially considering how we meet the character.

As it happens, I just bought a copy of this, which makes it (I think) the best Western I own.

Richard Kirkham said...

It's never my favorite Western, until I'm watching it and my jaw drops open at how amazing so many of the pieces are. Best that you own is a reasonable label.

Charles D. said...

This has to be one of the best write-ups I've ever read re this film.

Richard Kirkham said...

Thanks Charles, I love this film and I am happy to say it is my favorite western.